When More Technology is Not Better

When More Technology is Not Better
I recently got a new car after driving the same vehicle that I enjoyed for over 10 years.  Although the ride and comfort were a great upgrade, I was excited about the new advancements in technology features that promised to make life easier, more convenient, and to enhance my experience during the significant amount of time that I spend in my car.

As expected, I was wowed by the touchscreen interface on the entertainment system, the built-in navigation, hands-free control for my phone and other applications, as well as by the many new accessories and safety features that were included.  What I didn’t expect, as someone who is in the technology business and specializes in usability and user experience, is that I would have a difficult time getting comfortable embracing these new controls in my car.

My experience thus far causes some concern.  There are so many options and features that it is overwhelming bordering on intimidating.  Looking the entertainment system, there are three types of radio stations available (FM/AM/XM), a USB, Bluetooth, an auxiliary audio input to play content from an external device like a smartphone or MP3 player, and a CD player.  You can also play online content from a smartphone through Pandora or Stitcher.  Additionally, GPS navigation is on the same control, adding more options and features to the set of controls.

From a manufacturer’s standpoint, providing the customer with all of these features and flexibility sounds like a great idea.  What customer would complain when they are getting so much?!  Comparatively, my old car offered AM, FM, and CD options, with features like XM and hands free calling as external add-ons.

Simplicity has been Thrown out the Window

From a user standpoint, simplicity has been thrown out the window!  There is a touchscreen with approximately 40 radio presets, source selection, options to enter the setup menus, hard buttons on the perimeter of the touchscreen that provide some of the same features as the touchscreen, and buttons on the steering wheel that also provide controls.  Screeech!

My first reaction is how does someone drive safely when they are presented with all of these options in a complex system?!

Additionally, how does someone who is non-technical ever feel comfortable using this system?!

This is just the tip of the iceberg.  The “so-called” safety features are so good that they beep and flash with regularity making causing additional distraction and discomfort.  I may not be the best driver, but I know that I couldn’t be as “un-safe” as the vehicle thinks that I am.  I also know that the more I try to use the entertainment system or navigation, the more risk I have driving unsafely.

Don’t Forget the End User

This story brings me back to the idea that we need to keep our focus on the user, the usability of the system, and the goal of deploying technology to improve lives, enhance experiences and satisfy needs.  Providing a variety of options like controls, buttons, power, and flexibility looks good from the standpoint of a manufacturer or developer; however, it is up to the programmer, consultant, or integrator to identify specifically what the user needs, values, and will feel comfortable using.

When you’re going for the wow factor with technology it’s easy to forget that it is essential to keep the user in mind and to understand that a solution must match a need.

As the user in this scenario, I appreciate all the capabilities and the bells and whistles; however, I need convenience, reliability, and low stress.  If my tolerance level is being tested by the technology built-ins in my car, I can’t imagine how non-technical, less patient, and less engaged users must feel!

The Smartphone Model

Let’s try to relate the car technology user experience to that of the smart phone.  We always hear that our customers want their AV control systems to be as easy to use as their iPhones.  So, I stopped to think about the difference between my iPhone and my car’s entertainment system.  My iPhone is a feature rich, powerful tool that does many things and can serve many purposes. However, at times, I have trouble finding where a certain app is on my phone or remembering how to access a particular feature.

By default the iPhone has basic functions and gives users the ability to add more as they want or need it by installing apps.  The default functionality is easy to understand because it provides a small set of options that are reliable, consistent, straightforward and applicable to most users.  Features are easy to access from a single page of shortcuts.  Not everyone uses all the functions the phone offers, but there aren’t enough of those functions to detract from the overall user experience.

On a smartphone, built-in apps create a baseline comfort level that sets expectations for the operation of the device.  Upon the need or desire for more features, the user can download more apps and the functionality, comfort,  and confidence level continue to grow in tandem.

On the flipside, if  you were given an iPhone with a bunch of unfamiliar apps that were not organized to your liking, you would get that same sense of feeling overwhelmed, uncomfortable and frustrated that I experienced with my new car’s entertainment system.


A smartphone with its default apps.

Default iPhone Screen


A smartphone with pages of apps that are not very clear, well organized, or applicable to the average user:

iPhone with Many Apps

Applying Lessons to AV

Let’s give this situation some thought when approaching our AV systems.  I always say there is a tradeoff between functionality and ease of use and it is important to find the balance point for the user or set of users whose needs we address.  Systems can never be completely intuitive to every user without establishing a baseline understanding.

Once we do establish that baseline, the user can unlock more features and functionality that satisfy needs, are consistent and reliable and are presented logically.  Like education, it is important to build on existing knowledge and experience in order to expand your understanding, skills, and effectiveness.

In the end, it may be a case of less is more.  The ability to customize and maintain simplicity wins over providing a host of features and functions that the user cannot appreciate.

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